Why Tom Brady's Controversial Approach To Fitness Is Changing The Game | Men's Health Magazine Australia

Why Tom Brady’s Controversial Approach To Fitness Is Changing The Game

8:45 on an impossibly clear and bright morning at a private resort in the Bahamas. A whisper of wind rustles the palm trees, and tucked down a golf-cart path, shielded by flowering bushes, there’s a freshly marked-out football field with two yellow uprights on either end.

Apart from a gallery of seagulls, there’s no one around except Tom Brady, his trainer and best friend Alex Guerrero, and Brady’s assistant Kevin Bonner. In person, the 42-year-old Brady looks about 30, and he is not the kind of celebrity who seems less handsome or more normal in real life. He’s bigger and taller than you might expect, with huge hands and thick limbs, and he radiates confidence with his icy blue hawkish eyes and disarming smile. “We need you to catch some balls today,” he says, grinning my way. “You ready?”

Every summer for the past seven years, the quarterback of the New England Patriots has come to this remote island for a beach boot camp. It’s an intense part of his regimen, which has him training two to three hours daily to strengthen his arm, pack on more upper-body muscle to absorb hits, and sharpen his footwork and acceleration so that he can elude pass rushers.

As Bonner unzips an egg carton-like duffel bag with six game balls nestled inside, Brady uses a golf laser rangefinder to check the yardage. It’s slightly off. Guerrero walks down the sideline, putting down cones every ten yards as measured by Brady. The QB slips into his shoulder pads, dons a silver helmet, and warms up using a white hand towel instead of a ball. He unfurls that smooth throwing motion that has tortured opposition players and thrilled New England fans for 19 years, culminating with a flick of the wrist that snaps the towel. Bonner and I put on receiver gloves and spread out ten yards downfield.

Bonner’s advice: “Just put your hands up and the ball will hit them.” Brady starts off throwing short bullets, and Bonner’s tip is dead-on: the balls slice through the hot air and slam into my hands. Brady goes through the gears, throwing 20-yarders and then 30-yarders. Then we drop to 60 yards. This is a maximum-effort drill for distance. Brady is throwing down the sideline, launching six passes as far and as straight as possible. Our job is to catch the balls and put them down right where they would land. Guerrero and Brady tinker with his drop, bounce, step, torque and release. When a pass wobbles off course, Brady shouts to the palm trees, “That’s an interception.” When I drop a perfect spiral, he screams at me, “That’s the game winner!” 

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After the six passes, he jogs down, inspects the cluster and sips water from his Klean Kanteen. Most of the balls are within five or ten yards of one another around the 60-yard cone. He tells me his arm is as strong as it was when he entered the league, and I believe him. Catching these bombs is chewing up my forearms; they’re etched with lace marks and will end up being bruised for days. Later, Brady tells me that during games, only about 10 per cent of his passes do what he wants them to do. “There are times when I release the ball and I know it’s perfect. I throw it with the exact pace and arc that I wanted, and to the exact location,” he says. “But when I throw it and it doesn’t do that, in my mind [I’m thinking,] I’m fucking shit – what did I do wrong? I fucking overstrode. Too little torque.”

Guerrero notes that Brady will rarely throw 60-yard passes in a game. Last season, his longest pass was 49.9 yards – by comparison, 23-year-old Bills QB Josh Allen completed the league’s longest in 2018, at 63.9 yards – yet the point of today’s drill isn’t to lengthen Brady’s throwing range but to improve his accuracy and velocity for shorter throws. He closes out the session zipping 30-yard passes to different corners of the end zone. His arm is looser now, the balls flying out faster. Brady notes the flawless passes with a “There it is”. He has thrown close to 80 balls this morning, and he doesn’t want to stop. “I’m a little tortured,” he says. “At football, I want it to be so right.” 

Among Brady watchers, there’s a belief that he’s currently crafting a second Hall of Fame–worthy career. The first one lasted from 2001 to 2015, with four Super Bowl wins. Part two spans the past three years and includes two more league championships. In between there were injuries, scandals, a suspension and a lawsuit, but the fact remains that Brady, the 199th draft pick of 2000, is now entering his 20th season in the NFL with a brand-new Super Bowl ring – his sixth. No quarterback has ever played so well for so long, and his singleminded focus on winning, his never-say-die attitude, has become almost as famous as he and his very famous wife are. (Indeed, on the Facebook Watch docuseries Tom vs. Time, Gisele Bündchen lamented that even she has to share him with his first love: football.) That’s why trying to talk to Brady about things other than football – politics, say, or the ideal gas law – is usually a waste of everyone’s time, especially his. He would be the first to tell you that there is no more or less to his reality right now than the sport of football and his family. And the people Brady matters to at all don’t really care about whom he votes for or the Game of Thrones dynamics of Pats Nation. They care about how he does it – defying time and physics, defying the natural laws of football and man to play like a kid half his age. 

In anticipation of the day when he can’t play like he used to, Brady is laying the groundwork for a new chapter of his life rooted in helping the rest of the world “do what they love better and for longer”. He founded his company in 2013, naming it TB12, and after some early success with a training facility outside Boston and a best-selling book, The TB12 Method, he’s now developing it into a full-blown lifestyle and fitness brand. This summer he opened a flagship gym in Boston, with plans to expand to New York City and Los Angeles next year (and after that to Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, Miami, London and Toronto). He’s also gotten into commerce and content – there are TB12-branded newsletters, workout videos, brain games, exercise equipment and protein supplements and snacks. His company’s stated goal is simple: “To redefine strength, health and wellness for an entire generation of men”.

That’s a big lift. And to do it, he’s got to win over the people who’d rather chew glass than watch the Patriots win, and the people who call BS on his and Guerrero’s approach to training, and the people who look at him and his career and his family and think that maybe some guys shouldn’t have all the luck. Make that a huge lift, but anyone who’s betting against the 199th draft pick of 2000 and the owner of six Super Bowl rings clearly hasn’t been paying attention.

Post-workout, we go to the beachfront house where Brady is staying with Guerrero, Bonner and Jack, the 12-year-old son he shares with his ex, actress Bridget Moynahan. (Bündchen is in Costa Rica with their two children, nine-year-old Benjamin and seven-year-old Vivian.) Brady can be extremely deliberate when he speaks, often pausing before answering questions because he knows better than most how words can take on whole new meanings in the context-free vortex that is social media. As he grazes on chips and guac and sips water (with TB12 electrolytes, of course), he tells me about the moment he realised that he’d spent most of his life thinking about physical fitness and strength training all wrong.

“You gotta understand,” he says of his early years in the NFL, “I was like every other American kid. I believed if you want to get good, you gotta go squat and bench, and it’s all I ever did.” But then he started to feel pain in his right elbow. It was 2006 – Brady was already a three-time Super Bowl champion, but his QB rating that season was only 87.9, almost ten points below his career average of 97.7 – and he was suffering severe tendinitis because he threw so much and lifted so heavy. The cycle of throw-ice-repeat reached a crisis point – he had to take days off from practice. “My teammate Willie McGinest said to me, ‘Dude, if you want to keep playing, you gotta go see Alex.’”

Guerrero’s background is in traditional Chinese medicine, but Brady was desperate after striking out with mainstream doctors. “I had forearm muscles that were like rocks and biceps muscles that were like rocks. I had my biceps pulling this way and my forearm muscle tugging that way, and the tendon was just on fire,” he says, tapping his elbow. Guerrero felt the inflamed tendon, Brady says, and “said that what we’re going to do through pliability – although we didn’t even call it pliability then, because we had to come up with a word for it – is effectively lengthen the forearm muscle and lengthen the biceps and triceps through deep-force work. Alex did it one time and I was like, ‘What? The last ten years of my life I’ve been in pain, and now, after he’s worked on my forearms, biceps and triceps, there’s no more pain in my elbow?’ It clicked for me right away.”

Guerrero then treated Brady’s shoulder pain (from too much throwing) and groin problem (from too much squatting), and Brady was hooked. A helmet to his knee caused an ACL injury in 2008, and he did all his rehab with Guerrero. “At that point, I said, ‘Alex is going to do everything. Alex is going to take care of me.’” Today, each of Brady’s daily sessions with Guerrero begins on a massage table, with deep-force treatment of 20 muscle groups, each for about 20 seconds. Guerrero strokes the muscle rhythmically, and then Brady starts flexing and relaxing the muscle at a faster and faster pace while doing a functional movement.

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Then the real 40-minute workout begins. The rub on Brady was always that he had a “Division I upper body but the lower body of a scrub” (so said his high school coach in a positive piece in The Washington Post) and “plodding platypus feet” (real nice, high school teammates). That’s why Guerrero focuses on speed, agility and core stability. Most days, Brady does a lot of high-resistance-banded movement drills (squats, push-ups, push presses) along with plenty of lunging, squatting and planking in different directions against the tension of the band. After the workout, it’s back to the treatment table, though this time there is less force; it’s to speed recovery by increasing blood flow and flushing lactic acid.

Guerrero believes that as athletes age, their understanding of the game improves but their bodies start to betray them. “I’ve always thought if we can figure out a way to make Tom’s body keep up with his brain, he’ll be able to play a long time.”

“I’m more of a thinker, obviously, than a physical specimen,” says Brady. It’s as close to a humblebrag as he will get, yet he does invest time and energy into training his brain to make smarter choices faster. He spends 15 minutes per day using TB12 BrainHQ (developed with Posit Science, a leader in online training for brain plasticity), drilling his brain speed and pattern recognition. That prep, plus film study, plus his well-known memory (he can accurately and vividly recall plays from decades ago), plus 19 years of experience, give Brady special powers at the line of scrimmage. Like Neo in The Matrix – stay with me here – he can seemingly slow down time in his mind and bend it to his will. He even talks in Neo-isms. “There is a comfort in the known, as opposed to being uncomfortable with the unknown,” he says. “There are not many things that I unknow in football. You call the play. I see the defense; I know what to do. Say there’s five guys going on routes. Wherever the defense guards are, I’m going to throw it the opposite way. By the time I have the ball in my hands, I know what I want to do with it.”

A few days before the trip to the Bahamas, I travelled to the TB12 Sports Therapy Centre at Patriot Place, the mall outside Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Brady and Guerrero opened this facility in 2013. Since then, the team has treated an estimated 3000 people, from a three-year-old who needed help learning to walk to a 95-year-old trying to recover mobility after a fall. The majority of clients fall into two categories: athletes under 20 looking for an edge and 40-somethings looking to maintain their peak, says TB12 CEO John Burns. It’s a 560-square-metre space with a central patch of turf dotted with red foam rollers and vibrating spheres, a cluster of cardio machines, a basketball hoop and four treatment rooms on both sides. There’s no clanking of weights, because there are no weights. Instead, there are racks with different-coloured bands designating their resistance. This centre is the proof of concept that inspired the new 930-square-metre flagship TB12 Sports Performance and Recovery Centre in Boston.

What distinguishes TB12 from other gyms is the emphasis on hands-on deep-tissue work as part of every workout. My bodywork coach is faster. It’s a freaky, unfamiliar feeling, but it’s also invigorating. I feel fully charged. Then I stand and do a series of lower-body and core-stability drills that isolate the weaknesses on my left side. Done regularly over eight weeks, these drills would correct the imbalance and make me a more efficient runner, says Boucher. It’s tough, and by the end I’m drenched in sweat. Then it’s another rubdown, but more gentle. Although I’m exhausted, I feel exhilarated. 

There’s a lazy person’s appeal in the structure of the workout. Like many guys, I often skip my warm-ups and cool-downs. With TB12, those elements are baked in. More broadly, TB12 is riding the rising tide of self care, a trend evidenced by the spread of mobility classes, the emergence of gyms like Lymbr and Stretch*d, and the proliferation of expensive self massage devices such as Theragun and Hyperice Hypervolt. At the new TB12 flagship, clients will be able to do one-on-one sessions with coaches, all of whom train under Guerrero for three months. Plus, there will be group classes that teach self-treatment using foam rollers and your own hands.

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Despite his star pupil’s success, Guerrero has faced criticism from exercise researchers who complain about the lack of scientific evidence behind the TB12 approach. Specifically, experts note that muscle pliability is not a physiologically accurate term and that it’s unlikely that deep-tissue work lengthens and softens muscles. Guerrero’s response is to point to Tom Brady, and Brady, for his part, is happy to corroborate. “I absolutely know 100 per cent that it works, and the reality is I’m just a client who lives by the teachings.” He also feels compelled to share his knowledge with others, especially his teammates. “Say I see a guy who has a sore hamstring. I’ll think, ‘His hip flexors are too tight; his hamstring is too tight’. But the guy might say, ‘My hamstring must be weak; I must do more hamstring curls’. It crushes me. I freak out. I need this teammate on the field!” 

It’s not necessarily that Guerrero’s detractors are wrong. There isn’t a ton of research to support his claims, but that’s mostly because researchers are still figuring out how manual muscle therapy works, and they don’t appreciate Guerrero (and, by extension, Brady) getting too far out in front of science. “Inventing terminology like pliability and explaining it with pseudoscience drives researchers batshit crazy,” says Pat Davidson, a respected exercise physiologist. “What Guerrero is doing works. There’s no need to explain why.” Davidson has a theory, though: deeptissue work may be effective because the stroking sensations give your brain more information about your body. As a result, your brain feels safer allowing your body to move and it sends “greater motor-output signals to your muscles, enabling them to display a greater range of motion, velocity and force”. Maybe. Maybe not. But it works okay for Brady.

Perhaps the closest analogy to his mission with the TB12 brand is Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop – hey, world, here’s a celebrity who is the ideal spokesperson for their own brand, because if it works for them, it can work for you! – and just as Paltrow comes with certain baggage, so does Brady. Some people love to hate him, whether they’re jealous or think he’s arrogant or both. I present my Goop theory to Brady and he scrunches his face at the comparison. He emphasises that “you don’t need to be like a cyborg” to be healthy and fit; you just have to make more good decisions than bad ones. But I mention that trolls target Paltrow in part because she puts so much stock in the role of choice in health and happiness and wellness. It’s easy for her to make good decisions – she’s Gwyneth Paltrow – and that selfassurance can grate on people. “No one has to be Tom Brady,” he says. “I just get to be Tom Brady. You get to be you. Everyone has a choice. But if you want to be good at sports, you have to work hard at it. If you want to be healthy, you have to work at it. But you can’t say, ‘I want to be healthy’, then eat shitty food and do crappy workouts.”

Contrary to popular belief, Brady claims he’s not militant about his diet. “I have a friend who freaks out if it’s not the most organic this or that, and I’m like, ‘That stress is going to harm you way more than eating that chip is’.” That said, Brady tends to eat the same healthy foods over and over: berryand-banana smoothies pre-workout; avocado and eggs for breakfast; salads with nuts and fish for lunch; hummus, guacamole or mixed nuts for snacks; and roasted vegetables and chicken for dinner. He rolls his eyes when I ask about his favourite cheat meal. “If I’m craving bacon, I have a piece. Same with pizza. You should never restrict what you really want. We’re humans, here for one life.”

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If Brady is mellowing out at all – which is debatable – it’s probably because there is nothing like having children to give someone a little perspective. He recalls how after the Patriots lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2017 Super Bowl, he walked into the locker room and found his three kids in tears. “I had to put my emotions aside so I could deal with their emotions,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Guys, look, Daddy doesn’t always win. That isn’t the way life is. You try really hard – that’s the most important thing. If you gave it your best, you live with the outcome’.” 

Whenever Brady talks about his family, which he does easily and without prompting, he comes to life, waving those long arms and breaking into laughter as he describes how each of his kids delights him. “Jack is just like me – he holds a lot in. Benny lets it all out. Vivi, she doesn’t care. They’re going to be their own selves, not who you want them to be.” Elaborating on the topic, he says: “Jack loves sports. He wants to try hard and he never wants to disappoint his dad. That was me. I’d wake up early on weekends to do stuff with my dad. That’s why I didn’t party a lot. If Dad wanted to golf, I wanted to be there with him. And if I ever missed those things, it would crush me.

“When Benny came along, I thought he would be just like Jack. So I was like, ‘C’mon, let’s do this.’ And he was like, ‘Nope.’ And I was like, ‘What? No, do this!’ And Gisele kept saying to me, ‘Would you effing understand that your son is different?’ It was hard for me. I was like, ‘What do you mean? He’s a boy; he should just do all these things that I do.’ The reality is Benny just likes different things. And it’s great because now I just have to go do what he wants to do. When we do that, we have the best time. He’s like, ‘OMG, Dad, you’re so funny.’ He loves joking, and I joke back.”

Jack pops in, taking a break from playing Mortal Kombat, and asks a burning question. “Dad, is Jumanji 2 almost finished?” Brady, who knows Jumanji 2’s star, Dwayne Johnson, and DMs him regularly, cracks up. “Jack would rather hang out with DJ than me, clearly, as you can see, which I love.”

Next up, Brady turns his attention to Bündchen. “Gisele is not really into sports,” he says. “She’s like a kite flying in the sky, and I’m kind of tethering her. Sometimes I have to hold on hard.” Their backgrounds are in fact very different. “Gisele’s life has been very nontraditional,” says Brady. “She left home at 14; she lived in Japan at 16 in an era with no cell phones. She lived in New York City at 17 without speaking English. In her mind, there are no boundaries. ‘Why can’t you do that? Why do you have to go to school? Why can’t you just leave and live in a different country?’ In her reality, you can. Coming from mine, it was very different. This is what you do: you go to elementary school, go to high school, go to college. In her mind, why do you have to do any of those things? And you know what? She’s right. I’m the one that had to go, ‘You’re right!’ And that’s helped me grow.” 

I can’t help thinking he might have his kite metaphor backwards. While Brady is watching untold hours of game film and focusing on squeezing out yet another winning season, Bündchen is nurturing and protecting their brood and out earning him some years and showing up on game days to cheer him on. So Brady wants to buck mainstream science and create new training protocols. Why can’t you do that? Brady wants to play until he’s 45. Why can’t you do that? Maybe Brady is the kite and Bündchen is the tether that allows him to soar.

After the morning throwing session, we take a golf buggy to the beach. Guerrero paces out 30 yards, placing a cone every 10. Naturally, Brady remeasures. Then, back in shoulder pads and helmet and holding a ball in the midday sun (“Practice like you play,” he says), he starts sprint drills in the sugary sand. Guerrero holds a band around Brady’s waist to add resistance and make him drive his feet with greater force so that he can accelerate faster. Jack joins in. Guerrero gives him a ten-yard head start for a 20-yard race. “Copy Jack – he has good form,” Guerrero quips. “He’s faster than Daddy already!” Other times, Brady drops back while Guerrero rushes at him with boxing pads and jabs his torso before shouting, “Go!” Then Brady sprints. “I’m familiar with starting at the bottom and fighting my way to start,” he explains. “I’ve kept that mentality. I’ve never felt like, ‘Man, I sure can’t get any better’.” Off Brady sprints. The man with the golden arm and the platypus feet, grunting hard and kicking sand, still chasing perfection. 

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